South Gloucestershire was created when the old county of Avon was divided. It covers the northern region of the city of Bristol and from the city suburbs the housing feathers out into countryside that stretches up to Cirencester, across to Stroud and over to Bath. As someone who has lived here all my life, it is a great, safe place to live with a great council who have a commitment to the environment.
However, if you are an owl that is hatched on South Gloucestershire, things may turn out to be quite different. Despite my efforts, and those around me that work to raise awareness of ways to help owls, there is still a lot of ignorance to the needs of owls and other birds of prey, and only a small amount of land is owl friendly. This siuation frustrates me - espaecially when the local public say to me ‘I never see an owl?’ - I wonder why?
Many farms have folded over the years and new ownership has diversified the use of the land, so if fields are not used for grazing, they are often cut for hay either to supply the local growing horse fraternity, planted with crops or otherwise. Only a small percentage of the land is left as set-aside.
Despite this situation, South Gloucestershire still has populations of owls, including some rarer species that choose to spend their winters with us.
SHORT-EARED OWLS are an upland ground nesting species that breed, generally speaking, in the north of the UK. However, every winter some of these birds, together with winter migrants from Scandinavia and Eastern Europe visit the milder lowland areas of the South, and are often seen in this region.
The owls normally arrive around Oct/Nov and usually stay in the region all winter, usually by April or early May to travel back to their breeding grounds. Individual birds can turn up literally anywhere in our region, but a good place to look for them is the River Severn corridor, where the owls hunt for voles along the grassy, unmanaged flood plains.
The best known hot spot for wintering short-eared owls along the Severn is the area between the two Severn Bridges called Aust Wharf and along towards Avonmouth. This area is a superb site to watch short-eared owls from the road with very little chance of disturbing them.
LONG- EARED OWLS have a reputation as being difficult to see and mostly quiet outside the breeding season. They are therefore very under-recorded in South Gloucestershire, despite the efforts of local birding sleuths and conservation volunteers, that attempt to locate both breeding birds and also winter roosts.
The most famous local winter roost was at Oldbury Power Station in the winter of 96/97, when up to seven birds were seen in hedgerow along a bridleway. Since then odd wintering birds have been recorded along the Severn. This area is highly recorded by dedicated bird watchers, and so it is not unlikely that there are other wintering birds each year in areas less frequented by birders.
Indeed, I was once told of ‘lots of small owls’ flying out of the hedges along an old railway line near Iron Acton on New Year’s Day back in 2003. A survey the next winter produced
THE BARN OWL is on the South Gloucestershire Council Biodiversity Action Plan but the population in South Gloucestershire is never given much of a chance to increase and those we have are quite under-recorded.
With lots of land in private ownership, there is intensive management of many fields and those people that do have barn owls breeding on their land tend to keep it quiet and are sometimes unwilling to work with conservationist groups.
With the exception of a few friends that do tremendous work for owls in the region, some of the enthusiastic groups of volunteers working for the main bird of prey charity in the area charge around like the keystone cops at times and I’ve no doubt they’ve put some people off getting involved with them. Another issue is the absolute obsession with putting up nest boxes. There must be over 300 in this relatively small region and many of them are empty.
TAWNY OWLS are quite common in South Gloucestershire, and are found in many woodlands and copses in the area, as well as in churchyards, parks and some large gardens.
Each year I am employed by South Gloucestershire Council, BANES & Bristol Councils to lead a series of Owl Prowls, where the public can join me in at Local Nature Reserves and not only learn about owls and their conservation, but also have a chance of seeing one.
These owl prowls are also a useful surveying tool, and are especially useful to monitor resident owls each year and make sure they are still there. Up to 100 people in a woodland is not an ideal situation, but it’s surprising how the instinct to defend it’s territory overcomes the birds fear of humans.